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Paul Gross, front, as King Lear with Anthony Santiago, left, as Earl of Gloucester and John Kirkpatrick as Curan in King Lear at the Stratford Festival.David Hou/Stratford Festival

  • Title: King Lear
  • Written by: William Shakespeare
  • Director: Kimberley Rampersad
  • Actors: Paul Gross, Michael Blake, André Sills
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 29

Critic’s Pick

Paul Gross keeps you on your toes with his Lear at the Stratford Festival.

The stage-and-screen star (Due South, Slings & Arrows) at the centre of a very watchable King Lear production directed by Kimberley Rampersad had me hungry for each of his entrances – wondering what the title character was doing to do next or, rather, what he was going to do next with the character.

That’s no small feat when it comes to a 400-year-old play, and makes his unique performance, to my mind, a must-see.

The first of Gross’s many unorthodox and enlivening line readings comes in the opening scene, where Lear publicly outlines the plan to divide his kingdom in three parts parcelled out to his three daughters. He explains:

“And ‘tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburthen’d crawl toward death.”

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Michael Blake, left, as Edmund and Déjah Dixon-Green as Regan in King Lear.David Hou/Stratford Festival

In Gross’s speaking of this speech, he lets an ironic tone slowly seep in until he gets right in the face of Shannon Taylor’s Goneril when he says the word “death” – and stretches the word out for about four seconds with a jokey and slightly manic gleam in his eyes.

There’s a hint of denial and fear there, too. His Lear is laughing about his death to make clear he is, actually, nowhere near the end of the life; and yet he wouldn’t be making a joke about his death if he didn’t know, on another level, it was coming, and maybe sooner than he’d like.

Gross’s Lear is characterized by this kind of joking/not joking delivery – matched by wiry, whimsical movements that show a similar physical propensity for feints and deke outs. This is both entertaining and entirely in keeping with a play that is filled with people pretending/not pretending that they have gone mad. (They fake it ‘til they’re naked.)

His retiring king’s big misstep is not to realize that he’s passed down his slippery relationship with language and meaning to his daughters. He believes his daughters, Goneril and Regan (Déjah Dixon-Green), when they tell him what he wants to hear – and is unable to understand why Cordelia (Tara Sky) would get all tied up in knots about speaking her feelings coming from a family of jokesters and hoaxsters. He turns on the wrong daughter to the ultimate detriment of all.

Of course, this theme of Shakespeare’s about how much to trust your ears (or your eyes) figures large in the other main part of King Lear, too – involving the sneaky bastard Edmund (Michael Blake) and his attempt to bring down his father, Gloucester (Anthony Santiago), and half-brother, Edgar (André Sills), amid the chaos in the kingdom.

Somewhat surprisingly, given this is the first Lear with a female director in the 70-year history the Stratford Festival, the interplay between the sisters and their husbands is perhaps the least fully developed part of this production – though Taylor graduates to full-blown star with her blazing Goneril.

Instead, it’s the battle of the brothers that tracks the best from start to finish. And, boy, does it have a finish with the most thrilling fight choreography seen in the Festival Theatre in ages (the supervising fight director is Geoff Scovell).

The acting there is excellent (as it is a bit scattershot elsewhere): Blake’s cerebral, charming-up-to-point, serpentine Edmund makes you wish for him to somehow get a chance at Iago in the future, while André Sills has a muscular take on Edgar’s journey from sleazy chip-off-the-old-block through his strange “Poor Tom” alter-ego to promising prospective leader.

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Shannon Tayloras Goneril in King Lear.David Hou/Stratford Festival

Rampersad’s production is muscular, too, and never flags. She does not shy from the astrological elements of the play or its gruesome sensation.

Rather than setting Lear in some specific period, there’s a sense here that the play is taking place in a distant past and future at once; it’s a little bit sci-fi and little bit fantasy.

I adored the sliding doors embedded with long, vertical fluorescent light bulbs that set designer Judith Bowden has installed around Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s pointy balcony on the Festival Theatre thrust stage. The entrances and exits accompanied by the whooshes of Miquelon Rodriguez’s sound design are très Trekkie.

Michelle Bohn’s costumes, meanwhile, add colour to the gloom with heroic costumes that are often worth of their own entrance applause and look back to Greek Gods and toward Marvel territory. I had no idea why the fool was dressed, exceptionally, like he was in a ska band – but Gordon Patrick White’s astutely underplayed take on the character sold me on it.

To return to Gross’s line readings, this time in the final scene, he does something stunning with the impossible “Howl, howl, howl, howl!” that comes – do I need to put in a spoiler alert here? – as Lear enters carrying in the body of Cordelia.

Actors usually substitute a guttural howl if this dialogue were a stage direction. But Gross instead speaks the words, rolling them around in his mouth, stuck in a rut asking an unanswerable question then trailing off into a deep growl of grief over and over: “How(lll)? How(lll)? How(lll)? How(lll)?”

Sometimes, Gross’s joking/not joking take on the character reaches a tipping point where it can almost seem like he is performing/not performing – keeping one foot outside of his characterization, perhaps protectively.

But this is a place where that little bit of distance between Gross and his Lear opens up a space for the audience to feel instead of be shown feeling.

I keep being tempted to write that Gross is, for all the originality, a lightweight Lear. But then I keep hitting the backspace key because I’ve never actually been as moved by the imprudent patriarch’s self-inflicted journey to the depths of despair before.

There are certain flaws in this Lear (as there are in all Lears and King Lear itself), but it shook me.

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